Maybe you saw the YouTube video showing a huge chalkboard placed in the middle of New York City with the words “WRITE YOUR BIGGEST REGRET” written at the top. People of all descriptions began to write -- and there was one word that showed up in every response.
What do you think it was? PAUSE --”Anyone want to make a guess?”
It was the word “NOT” -- not finishing my MBA”, “not spending more time with the kids,” “not traveling the world,” “not starting a savings account in my 20s,” “not saying YES to things,” “not following my artistic talent,” “not being a better friend,”..
All these regrets have something in common. There are all about chances not taken, words not spoken, dreams never pursued. There were tears -- and there was one man who said “Thank you, thank you” several times.
Then the people who lingered were given an eraser. You should have seen the smiles as people wiped the board clean. One woman commented: “A clean board seems like where I want to be, seems like where I want to go. It’s hopeful. It means there’s possibility.”
It’s liberating to know that it’s not the missteps -- some of them colossal -- that I’ve taken in life that I’m likely to regret; it’s the steps not taken.
IT’S TIME TO TAKE SOME STEPS!
We All Need a New Heart
I have a dear friend who just launched a private Facebook page called “Heart Munchies.” Anne Marie describes it as a light, playful invitation to enter a world that is rich in meaning, where wonder, adventure and fun are treasured values. Heart Munchies, she says, are “food for your heart, essential nutrients for living a heart centered life, compelling you to:
*Live in possibility
*Be driven by passion and purpose
*Continuously expand with personal growth
*Be obedient to the callings of your heart
*Make your heart your best friend”
What a brilliant idea to offer people a forum to expand into a brighter, more joyful experience of life.
This reminds me of a personal mentor’s commitment to daily “gratitudes” -- compiling things to be grateful for instead of compiling complaints, focusing on what is great about my life instead of what is not so great. This is “heart food” especially rich in nutrients.
So what feeds my heart these days? What makes my heart swell with gratitude and wonder?
*Any thought of Georg Weisenthaler, the surgeon who pulled Lee back from the edge six weeks ago
*Listening to Lee breathing smoothly and easily during the night
*Kris and Allen Sudduth who -- with great generosity of spirit -- have stepped in to keep our business humming while we concentrate on building Lee’s strength
*Anticipating the arrival of Lee’s new heart
*Seeing the faces of men and women bloom as hope and possibility replace resignation and disillusionment
*The great outpouring of love and prayers that continues to rain down in our lives
*Insightful friends who lift us up and carry us forward when the slope is steep
In a certain sense, Lee already has his new heart, because as the song goes, he’s had the chance to live like he was dying.
“Live like you’re dying” is the name of a country song performed by Tim McGraw. It’s about what a man did when he was given the prognosis of only months to live.
The salient parts of the song go like this:
“I loved deeper, and I spoke sweeter,
And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying…
I was finally the husband that most of the time I wasn’t
And I became a friend a friend would like to have.
And I took a good long hard look at what I’d do
If I could do it all again.
I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying,
Like tomorrow was a gift and you’ve got eternity
To think about what could you do with it,
What can I do with it,
What would I do with it?”
When your life telescopes down to a minute by minute awareness of the value of THIS moment, you have a new heart. You are living a heart-centered life, driven by passion and purpose, by compassion and gratitude. Life is all about the possibilities that were previously pushed aside by fear and complacence.
We all have limited time here.
We all have the chance “to live like we’re dying.”
We all have a chance at living our lives with a new heart.
A wise man once told me that there are two ways to live my life;
One is as if there are no miracles.
The other is as if everything is a miracle.
Feel the wonder.
EVERYTHING is a miracle.
In the course of this journey to a new heart for Lee, there have been multiple teams.
First, there was the Evaluation Team to see if Lee would qualify for heart transplant. This involved a week and a half of intensive testing for any other health issues, physical, psychological or mental, five or six immunizations and several dozen blood tests.
Once it became clear that Lee’s old heart was deteriorating too fast to wait for the right donor heart, it was the LVAD Team who showed up to help him accept and then function well with an implanted heart pump as a bridge to transplant.
Once Lee had recovered sufficiently from the LVAD surgery, the Heart Transplant Coordinators placed his name on the list of people waiting for a heart and together we began the vigil to find a match in blood type and heart size for Lee when his turn came.
Now we’re working closely with the Post Transplant Team to make sure we minimize the risk that Lee’s body will reject his new heart, and that the very powerful medications required to prevent rejection don’t cause cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis or kidney failure -- to name a few common side effects. For the past six weeks, there have been infusions, labs, biopsies and clinics nearly every day of the week. Our team calls at least every other day to adjust the balance of the 40 plus medications Lee takes every day, and to offer encouragement when progress is painful and slow.
Several of the team members we’ve worked with have become lifelong friends. It’s not impersonal. I’m sure they care about UCSF’s survival statistics and the security of their jobs, but there’s no question that that these are people dedicated to extending and expanding the lives of people like Lee -- as many as they can.
I ask myself: What are the chances that Lee and I could navigate this maze on our own? What are the odds that Lee would have survived without the coordinated efforts of proven teams?
I believe it’s not too much of a reach to say that the coordinated efforts of proven teams is just as crucial in building our business.
When I first became a business owner, I didn’t understand the power of team. I didn’t play baseball, basketball or even volleyball. I wasn’t on a swim team like Lee. I suffered from the common misconception that I had to get up to speed and somehow become a masterful business builder overnight.
It took a while but then I began to understand that I had neither the knowledge, nor the resources, nor the time and energy to succeed on my own. I learned that every part of the business, every step of the 8 Step Pattern of Success is a team effort.
I love Kris Sudduth’s response when a candidate says, “But I don’t have enough time!” She says, “It’s not that you don’t have enough TIME; it’s that you don’t have enough TEAM.”
How do we leverage what time we each have? And how do we leverage the skills we each have? The answer is allow ourselves to become accountable to a proven team dedicated to expanding lives, just as Lee and I became accountable to proven team dedicated to extending lives.
When I first got started in my business, a full time job and two small children meant I had very little time to devote to it. I was a good student: I listened, I read, I showed up at open plans and seminars -- and I made a few calls that resulted in a couple of partners. My support team then leveraged my time by helping me build my dream and my list, improve my calls, show short effective plans and always follow-through as promptly as possible. They were always there to encourage, celebrate and course-correct.
Allen Sudduth likes to say that he and the team supporting him weren’t going to see each other at the same parties. I get what he means: I felt different from my new team; It took awhile for me to look past our differences to see that they had knowledge and experience that I didn’t, and that working together we could create exponential growth. As individuals we each had a piece or two of the puzzle but together we had all the pieces to make our visions into reality.
Success as a heart transplant recipient or as a business owner -- success in anything -- means you were willing to show up for practice, listen to those with the knowledge and the vision, and then pay it forward. The one in the spotlight who has achieved success has a team or multiple teams who supported their ascent -- who provided the knowledge, the resources, and the encouragement. This is always true in any field of endeavor.
Getting registered is good. Getting started is something else entirely. Getting started means finding those members of your team who are eager to show you the ropes and give you a boost in the direction of your dreams. Your team hangs in there, believing in your dream even when you don’t.
Fourth quarter--Counting on Overtime
A wise friend told me that she was resurrecting the victories during each quarter of her life. She decided on 20 year segments: Birth through age 20, 20 through 40, 40 through 60, 60 through 80. “Of course”, she amended, “there will be extra innings -- or overtime.”
Here in the fourth quarter at age 68, scoring victories is different than the wins of 17 or 35 or 52. Some of the victories now are in the service of making those extra innings we anticipate the apex of our “game.”
My First Quarter: Birth to Age 20
The victories of my first quarter include risky ventures like jumping Highway 50 on skis at age 9, walking the spines of homes under construction when I was around 11 or 12, jumping into the well at the Pulgas Water Temple off Hwy. 280 when I was 17.
It was also my 17th year that I gave a talk on French existentialism, in French, at Stanford before I knew I would apply and attend there. I recall that I was so stressed by this speaking debut that I contracted a prolonged and painful case of mononucleosis.
At the time, it seemed like a victory to be dating the MVP in football and basketball even though I was in the “brain” clique, not the “cheerleader/jock” clique in high school.
I was asked to be Valedictorian for my graduating class. My response? Having tested those risky waters, I said, “I’ll write it, but I won’t speak in front of all those people.” I later turned down a radio show offered because of my book review column in San Francisco Magazine. This stance was destined for a one of those complete 180 degree turnarounds. (See 3rd and 4th quarter).
My application to Stanford was accepted and several scholarships awarded. Straddling my 20th year, I attended Stanford in Vienna, which was the first departure from my strictly California cultural roots. This is where I acquired the conviction that one doesn’t appreciate their country of origin until they’ve lived somewhere else. It was also where I learned that most of our education is incidental to the courses we take.
My Second Quarter: Age 20 to Age 40
I graduated from Stanford early, and 45 years later my mother is still disappointed that I didn’t bother to attend the graduation ceremony. Ceremonies didn’t seem important at the time. Only much later did I understand that ceremony exists to focus and unify families, to conserve shared victories.
I got a job with a non-scheduled airline that doesn’t exist anymore to make enough money to go back to school and get a couple of teaching credentials. I flew for two summers, always being furloughed in time to begin the school year, because fewer planes were chartered in the fall, winter and spring. I learned I wasn’t ready to be the free spirit I thought I was; there were times I literally kissed the ground at home. Charter or non-scheduled airlines were notorious for calling the crew half-way home and surprising us with another planeload of Japanese nurses or Shriners or barbershop quartets and sending us back over the Atlantic or Pacific one more time. “We’re turning you around” were words I came to dread.
In my mid-twenties, I started my first long-term (9 years) relationship with a man who is still a good friend. Brian was an Annapolis grad/ model-actor who was rooming with a pilot I dated for awhile. Together we attended a San Francisco Magazine party -- can’t remember why. After a conversation with the editor, I started writing the book column. Victories include interviewing Gore Vidal (best known for the book/movie Caligula), James Baldwin (Go Tell it on the Mountain), Joseph Heller (Catch-22) and Maia Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Flies). I interviewed anyone who went on book tour -- including a hit man, an emerald miner, and the husband of iconic actress Rosalind Russell. “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” is the Rosalind Russell quote that reminds me even now that the banquet table is set for me. I just have to be have the courage to partake of the feast of people, places and peak experiences.
When San Francisco Magazine was sold to LA Magazine and dropped the book and theatre columns in favor of features like “The Top Ten Eligible Men in San Francisco,” I began writing feature stories. The one I enjoyed the most was “Survivors of the Quake” for the April issue of SF Mag to commemorate the 1906 quake. I interviewed people who had been children at that momentous event, and learned that the child in all of us doesn’t count the consequences -- loss of life and property -- but revels in and retains the wonder of new experiences like camping in the park, Chinese people passing out silver dollars for luck and two sisters who were extricated, giggling hysterically, from a Murphy bed that returned to upright --trapping them like two clams in one shell -- when the early morning quake hit.
With my San Francisco Magazine bi-line as a reference, I climbed on a plane and headed to New York to pitch stories to Cosmopolitan, Redbook and Business 2.0 among others. The next few years I wrote a number of international cover stories on health and cutting edge science. Every few months, I commuted to New York, where my author friends introduced me to the original writers of Saturday Night Live. I still remember swinging down 5th Avenue, my heart in my throat, wearing my black pencil skirt and green silk blouse, to go pitch stories to Helen Gurley Brown, legendary editor of Cosmopolitan. It was an exciting, fast-paced time when pushing past preconceived boundaries became if not a habit, an addictive rush.
I was writing for Cosmopolitan and Redbook, and Brian was doing Doublemint Gum commercials and gracing the cover of Playgirl Magazine. We felt like the role models for the hot-tub-and peacock-feather movement.
Brian had introduced me to running. I still miss heading out the door and working towards that first sweaty epinephrine high about 2 miles into the run. I wrote for about 2 hours every morning and then went for a 5 to 7 mile run - and the rest of the day was mine and I could eat ANYTHING. We raced with the Mt. Tamalpais running club, and just before my 30th birthday I completed my first marathon in just under four hours. I was planning to run half of the San Francisco marathon that day. The victory was that I just kept going. So many of my wins have been just that -- pushing past what I thought I could do.
At 34, it finally registered for me that sweet, fun Brian was never going to change his mind about having children, and it was time to go. This was a very difficult choice, but because I faced this hurdle of moving on, I married John a year later and our son, Duncan arrived a year later, four months after I turned 36. Mayme joined us when I was closing in on 40. Mayme’s birth was a victory. Since Duncan arrived via emergency C-section, I was determined to experience natural childbirth once in my life. I found an obstetrician that would let me labor with no intercession unless absolutely necessary. Fifty hours of labor including 4 hours of pushing later, my beautiful daughter arrived. Mayme still brings me flowers -- on HER birthday.
The later half of my 30’s was a celebration of their victories. I revelled in their childhoods and strived to make them as full of wonder and magic as possible. The Tooth Fairy always left a note praising Duncan and Mayme’s best qualities (in VERY tiny handwriting) and Santa Claus always left a thank-you note for the cookies and a second one on behalf of the reindeer for the carrots.
During that era when so many of us waited to start families, several of my friends waited TOO long and later greatly regretted it. This contrast elevates parenthood from customary to victorious. Even though my first marriage was destined to end, Duncan and Mayme have brightened and enlightened my life beyond measure. There are just things you never need to know about yourself if you never have children -- and for me, self-knowledge, or wisdom, is the ultimate destination.
My Third Quarter -- Age 40 to Age 60
It was just before my 40th birthday that I accepted that my then-husband was not committed to (did not even recall) the agreement that he would take a turn at working out in the world, and I would get my chance to be a full-time parent. He was committed to loving his kids, cooking us great meals and assembling a legendary wine cellar, but only very occasionally contributing to the family budget. Having waited so long, I was desperate not to miss ushering Duncan and Mayme through childhood.
A good friend approached me about a business that might allow me to “retire within the next five years.” Bristling with skepticism (hope twisted by fear), I said, “I’m listening…” A couple of months later, after extensive research, I stopped saying “NO” long enough to see the possibilities. I learned that suspending my programmed disbelief -- and allowing myself to actually believe that life could be better -- is the critical element in navigating to a new destination.
The victory of turning in my keys and coming home to Duncan and Mayme two and a half years later ranks right up there in the top five victories in my life. I still remember how it felt packing up a friend’s truck with my old oak desk and several boxes and saying goodbye to Sonoma Country Day School after 12 years. Relief laced with euphoria is the best description I can come up with. I have a much-loved photo of Mayme grinning impossibly big, sitting on my lap for the pumpkin patch hay ride the following October. I’ve always called this “my victory photo.”
It was a good school and I did good work there, both as a teacher and as Admissions Director, but I had much more important work to do at home and in my business. Duncan, as a dyslexic non-reader in the second grade, would need our combined focused efforts to get him through a school system that wanted to label his exceptional intelligence, creativity and insight as a disability. Mayme, who excelled in school and welcomed new challenges, counted on me as a dedicated cheering section -- someone who was not too tired after a day’s work to spend time baking cookies or watching a Shirley Temple movie with her.
My purpose in my business moved from eliminating the heavy burden of debt we’d accumulated to awakening others to claiming the lives they really wanted to live. After pushing past my initial terror, I began to speak to larger and larger groups from coast to coast -- and I began to enjoy it. The lives of some of the people I had introduced to the business began to change -- less time on the job, more time with the people they love, less debt, a car that started every time. It’s a business that celebrates every little victory,and the victories I remember best during this time were witnessing the recognition of others I had the honor of helping.
It was an unexpected victory to convince John to join me for counseling. I was hoping that -- with someone else in the room -- he could finally be able to hear that I just wanted a little help. I wanted him to find a way to contribute financially -- while I got my business solidly off the ground. What actually occurred is that I finally heard that risk and expansion -- and solvency -- were my aspirations, not his. I’d stopped believing that he’d ever realize the paralyzing effect of alcohol on his life. Duncan and Mayme and I had become accustomed to being on our own from about 4pm on everyday. I had come to think of John’s drinking as slow suicide by very fine wine.
During the next decade, Duncan graduated from highschool and went off to study and paint at the San Francisco Art Institute. Then Mayme graduated and attended Sonoma State and University of London Royal Holloway. This, too, was a victory, because the growth of my business meant they would both emerge without the undermining debt so many students carry for so long after graduation.
My Fourth Quarter -- Age 60 to 80
I’m about one third the way through the fourth quarter, “AND THE SCORE IS……” -- there is no simple score, of course, in the game of life. But there are turning points in the game, and so far, this quarter has already had the crowd (me) gasping in exhilaration and surprise at the plays on the field.
I count it a victory that I stayed in my marriage until I had exhausted all avenues I could think of, until Duncan and Mayme had flown the nest, until I’d stood by John through the death of his father and through his mother Sofie coming to live with us -- until I felt I would contract some dire illness if I continued to be untrue to who I really am.
First I moved downstairs, painting four rooms, adding a kitchen and a pellet stove, insulating and dropping the bedroom ceiling so that I wouldn’t be continually awakened by Sofie. John’s mother was a very sweet woman who had fairly advanced Alzheimers, and her clock was beginning to flip -- up all night moving around the house and sleeping most of the day. I had been providing most of her care -- taking her on outings, giving her showers and soothing her paranoia.
It was a victory to claim my own space, but I was only there for about two months when housesitting for a friend for two weeks brought it home to me that I hadn’t moved far enough away. At my friend’s home, I felt so peaceful and autonomous with frequent spikes of actual joy! I started losing weight and taking LONG walks. During those long walks I found that I was rehearsing what to say to John. It was time to talk about a formal separation.
About this time, I called an old friend about helping me reach a bonus level in my business that would mean a $20,000 check at the end of the year -- a check that had new meaning after spending all my savings on creating a living space (that, as it turned out) I wouldn’t be using for long, and now launching into the unknown.
This friend was Lee Strong -- someone who had been a business partner 15 years earlier. Lee had suspended his business --- in fact he suspended just about everything he was pursuing -- about 10 years previously when he had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. His heart was so enlarged that they were talking heart transplant. I didn’t see Lee once in that entire decade, but I had heard through mutual friends that the heart transplant hadn’t been necessary. Medications had worked exceptionally well in his case and he was doing fine, thriving in his database development business and going on grand adventures in his RV.
Lee’s response to my call was “Sure! But you have to have lunch with me.” He began calling regularly, asking if I wanted to check out antique stores in Petaluma, or take a hike around Spring Lake, or go geocaching (whatever that was!). I’d always enjoyed Lee’s company so I said, “Sure” -- and thought nothing of it until one day when suddenly we were holding hands over the lunch table. I was STILL thinking that it would be so great to live alone, but it seemed that Lee was making inroads in my heart.
Falling in love again? Lee knew long before I did, but in time I couldn’t deny how happy and present and energized I was whenever we were together.
There followed many happy days and months and years -- and MANY trips in his RV. I rediscovered the magic of campfires and starlit nights, of limitless vistas and deep conversations, of shared purpose and having someone to hold close at night. Both of us were -- and are -- amazed at the simplicity and completeness of our love.
We got married, and for two years now on our anniversary we’ve cried and danced again, listening to the recording of both our wedding rehearsal and our wedding.
We’re now in the very middle of the greatest endeavor we’re likely to face, because Lee’s heart stopped responding to medications and started to deteriorate rapidly about 10 months ago. Now we’re on a new journey. Destination: a new heart for Lee.
Victory Number One: Despite a very close call, Lee made it through the implantation of something called a Left Ventricle Assist Device, which is basically a motor that pushes about 6 liters of blood throw his body every minute. There have been some setbacks but all in all he’s getting stronger, and will soon be ready for
Victory Number Two: Lee’s new heart. We waited only 5 months, and Lee was in the hospital only 9 day -- and these two facts feel like genuine miracles.
Also on the scoreboard is the palpable new depths our relationship is reaching. Speaking with other couples who have gone through close call medical crises, I keep hearing these words: “Boy!! Did I find out who I was married to!” For me, I found out that I am married to a man of exceptional courage, optimism and vision. I also found out that I am capable of dedicating myself whole-heartedly to someone else -- with absolutely no resentment or unrest. I didn’t know that about myself. Lee and I love to talk about the passion, the ease, the playfulness and the harmony of our relationship. Now we’ve learned that it can withstand any storm, and wing even higher in high winds.
To date, in this quarter of the game, the clearest victory is the deep-seated understanding that happiness is born of gratitude married to a strong sense of purpose.
First quarter: experimentation, testing limits
Second quarter: expansion, testing limits
Third quarter: nurture and new beginnings -- reaching for more expansion
Fourth quarter: rejoicing and acknowledgment, gratitude and contribution
Many years ago when my son was diagnosed with dyslexia, a woman I respect greatly counseled me to be on the alert for people who might make Duncan feel like he needed to be fixed -- and to be very sure I wasn’t one of that number. She was another educator with a learning-different child of her own.
Yes, there needed to be strategies to help him navigate the expectations of an educational system that is designed for auditory and visual learners -- those who read fluently and memorize efficiently. At the time it was also a system designed to divert him from his real gifts -- drawing/painting/video production -- in order to address his “deficiencies.” In other words, we were always being told that he would be pulled from art class to take remedial reading classes. This was my cue to start the paperwork to transfer him to a different school. The price to “fix” him was too high; the price to fix him was to take away the primary activity for which he was celebrated.
I transferred Duncan three times during his elementary and high school years. It was a lot of extra work -- and extra driving time -- but Duncan had teachers who found ways to let him shine, both in his artwork and in his contribution to classroom discussions. In the areas where he needed support, these teachers understood that they didn’t need to dumb down the content. They just needed to help him with the mechanics.
I was referred to a tutor who had photos of famous dyslexics all over the walls of her in-home classroom: Steven Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg, Mohammed Ali, Magic Johnson, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Tom Cruise. Leonardo da Vinci -- and she made sure that Duncan knew that he too had an exceptional brain-- not a sub-standard one that needed to be fixed. She was his cheerleader, and because he was celebrated for his strengths, he improved steadily in those areas that were a struggle for him.
I can still feel my temperature rising when I recall the day a letter arrived from his high school recommending an extra course in making change, so that he could work at fast food restaurants; “After all, we all have to be productive members of society.” They might as well have written, “Here, we have this box we can put you in (literally), and then the problem-that-is-you is fixed.” Many times -- after Duncan had completed his B.A. at an excellent college, the San Francisco Art Institute -- I contemplated sending an announcement of completion to the authors of that letter. My more evolved self decided on a letter of gratitude to his tutor instead.
Years ago when I was teaching, there were always a few parents who would come in for their conference braced to hear how we were going to lower the hammer on their underachieving or misbehaving offspring. I always asked the same question: “Where does your child shine?” Whether it’s soccer or art, video games or the harmonica, a child needs to feel celebrated in order to be open to change. Someone with high self esteem is more productive -- and much easier to be around.
Consider the emotional bank account concept introduced in the book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. Covey explains that the emotional bank account is based on trust rather than money. Withdrawals come in the form of criticism, public castigation, any form of abuse and not keeping commitments. Deposits come in the form of praise, celebration, willingness to say you’re sorry and always doing what you say you will. When you’re making more deposits than withdrawals into someone’s emotional bank account, the relationship is strong and harmonious because both parties feel good about themselves and about how the other sees them. Trust is fertile ground for growth -- both growth of the relationship and growth of the individuals.
It’s not uncommon in couple relationships for one party to set out to “fix” the other. Maybe it’s the woman who feels she knows how her mate should dress, earn and recreate. She is the arbiter of correct standards, and she sets out to mold him to these universal (she believes) specifications. Maybe he has a gift for gardening, playing the guitar or running marathons. Maybe where he really shines is in making other people feel important. She admired his strengths and talents when they first got together, but now she is focused on the ways he falls outside her image of how her mate should be -- how loudly he talks on the phone, his propensity for letting the grass and late charges grow, his devotion to football and beer...
When Lee photographs a bee on a flower, the flower and the bee are distinct in the finest detail, but the background is fuzzy and indistinct. That’s what happens when our hypothetical woman focuses with great concentration on her mate’s perceived flaws; What isn’t right is clear and distinct and larger than life. What is right -- where he shines -- fades into a fuzzy, indistinct background. His gifts are denied center-stage. Rather than feeling celebrated, he feels like he can’t do anything right. The more withdrawals she makes from his emotional bank account, the more distance he wants to put between them and the more resistance he feels to changing whatever behavior is disturbing her.
We get more of what we focus on. More to the point, what we focus on is perceived as more and more prominent; it is, after all, the subject we’re bringing into careful focus in the foreground of our mental photograph. The danger is that in perfecting the focus on the ways in which her mate doesn’t meet her expectations, the “shortcomings” expand in her consciousness and before long entirely obscure his true gifts.
Note: Yes, there are behaviors that cannot be overlooked or tolerated. There are people that cannot or will not respond to respectful requests for change. Addictions, abuse -- whether physical or emotional, persistent apathy, clinical depression, diagnosed mental illness -- these are often manifestations of such a depleted emotional bank account that professional intervention is required to bring someone up to a positive balance again -- so that they can respond and not just react, so that they can choose to change.
If like me, you have a mate who is reasonably happy, balanced, and proactive in his life, it’s very simple to fill up his/her emotional bank account. What does it look like for us? It’s a touch, a kiss, a compliment, loving eye contact, preparation of a favorite meal, a back rub, holding hands, a night out, flowers, doing the dishes -- so many small acts of service and devotion.
Lee loves it when I pick up the tab for a meal out occasionally. It makes no difference, really. Our money is entirely merged at this point, but it makes him happy.
I love it when Lee suddenly freezes in mid-step and says, “Oh-oh, it happened AGAIN! I’m even more in love with you!”
We ask each other more than once a day, “What can I do for you?” More often than not, the answer is “Not a thing right now,” but it’s a great feeling knowing that someone really wants you to be as happy as possible.
When one of us does something undeniable stupid (like frying the microwave using it as a kitchen timer; yes, I did this), the other refrains from blaming. Lee helped me clean up, air out and then sat down and ordered a new one. I didn’t need to have a second opinion on how dense I can sometimes be in the service of expediency.
Lee and I recommend the book The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman whenever a friend says something like “We love each other, but we’re so different. I just don’t understand her.” A woman is more apt to say, “He just doesn’t get it!” Each of them are certain that they are showing their love and devotion, and just as certain that their partner is either refusing to acknowledge the effort or is just plain dense. It’s possible, says Chapman, that neither of them is fluent in their partner’s love language of origin. I know that Lee feels loved when I spontaneously give him a good foot rub (love language: physical touch), and he knows I feel loved when he raves about a turn of phrase in my writing (love language: words of affirmation) or jumps in and does the dishes (love language: acts of service). Filling up the emotional bank account is more effective when you’re depositing into the optimal account. As Lee says, why not make it the one that has the highest interest.
As a gardener, I think of it as providing the most fertile ground for Lee’s growth. How? Encourage, affirm, and celebrate him. Take time for a 10 minute foot rub. Love him without conditions. Lee has to do his own pruning, because only he can decide what the finished masterpiece that is Lee Strong will be.
I’ve heard it said that there is no such thing as constructive criticism, because by nature criticism is a tearing-down, not a building-up activity. Or to follow Covey’s metaphor, criticism is almost always a withdrawal from the emotional bank account. Happily, if you’re making frequent deposits and if your mate is a relatively happy, emotionally balanced person, respectful, loving requests for changed behavior are usually not perceived as withdrawals.
Consider this quote from Charles Schwab, investment guru: “I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism.”
This seems like a good place for PROMISE #2 from our wedding:
We are too busy looking at what’s right with us to worry about what might be wrong. We promise to keep looking at what’s right.
What do I want more of?
And why do I want more?
Make no mistake, what we seek to acquire says volumes about us. But that doesn’t mean that you or I decided to live the story in those volumes. Or that we’re even aware of what our story -- specifically our “props” or belongings -- say about us and about our priorities.
One’s life story chronicalled according to possessions changes over time. Classically, we explore as youths, enjoying the acquisitions of our parents, free to travel light in the quest for new experiences in new places. Most attempt to build assets and nest as young and middle-aged adults, often acquiring so much that it spills into storage unit cities. Next, once retired from a job, the script reads: Downsize and consolidate. The fear is that we may outlive our money and end up in “affordable” assisted living wishing we could “opt out.” Worse, your debt AND a monumental pile of your junk might disrupt the lives of those you love the most, even once you’re gone.
There are infinite variations on the scenario, of course. And there’s an actual movement -- the Minimalist Movement -- giving people permission to walk away from hyper-consumption and 80+hour work weeks. Some proponents are extreme, aka “off the grid”. Some are finding the most comfortable way to make the money outlast the month. And some, are reverting to childhood, and choosing adventure and awe over convenience and caution.
There’s a cost, though, to abandoning the cultural expectations that say we have to live in a big house, drive a new car and take enviable vacations in order to wear the badge that says, “Successful American Human”.
Our stuff is inevitably part of our identity. As our possessions evolve so does at least one dimension of our sense of self.
For example, there was a period in my life when I was a college student living on brown rice and water in order to buy books. I didn’t look at this as a problem, just as the reality I was walking through on my way to something better.
There was another period in my late 20s and early 30s when I ran marathons and wrote stories for major magazines.
A more recent identity was as an independent woman supporting a family, and paying the mortgage on a beautiful lakeside property in northern California while building a business.
Most of those chapters were spent in the pursuit of more -- more knowledge, more excitement, more stability, more possessions, more options for myself and my two children.
Lee and I have a stripped-down life. First came the major purge four years ago, when we got rid of three vehicles and a three bedroom home with a large detached office and almost all the contents. We became nomadic, and at the same time, I became almost obsessive about lightening the burden of stuff, quickly donating anything that is rarely or never used. I love this line in a popular country song: “I have everything that I need, and nothing that I don’t.” What some people call “spring cleaning” is really a continual process for us, as we refine and reorganize our very limited storage spaces. If you’re packing everything up and moving every 2 days to 2 weeks, you soon learn to minimize the things that need to be protected from the 4 point earthquake called travelling from one place to another with all your possessions. Roads in California regularly take us into even higher numbers on the Richter Scale.
In the process of purging possessions, we pared down to a stripped-down sense of self. I’m not entirely sure of why this is true, or even how to describe it. I’m thinking it has something to do with departing from socially accepted norms.
Lee and I were recalling an encounter several years ago in a campground in Benbow, California. The man in a neighboring RV came over with his glass of wine and we invited him to have a seat. He was very friendly and forthcoming --- until he asked where our home was, and Lee related that we were renters, not owners. His demeanor changed instantly. He soon departed, leaving no doubt that we had plummeted in his esteem.
Owning one’s home is an ideal that has been equated with a successful life. It’s gratifying to see the assumption that more is always better held up to the light, as more and more people explore tiny homes, tree houses, the camping lifestyle and minimalism in all it’s various interpretations.
Living with less stuff doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. I see it as more of a trade. Lee and I faithfully watched a YouTube channel called “Less Junk, More Journey” once we began to seriously weigh the option of just hitting the road. It wasn’t that we identified with this young family from Tennessee, but their message is clear: They were willing to make the trade and grow closer together versus growing apart. They exchanged their stationary home and established careers for family unity and adventure.
So what was our trade when we made our leap?
We traded plenty of stuff -- closets of extra clothes, furniture, appliances, two bathrooms, extensive garden, precious antiques and memorabilia, books, photo albums, kitchenware, extra vehicles and so much more -- for plenty of new experiences.
We traded being able to do the laundry at any time for jockeying to stay somewhere with good laundry facilities when we start to run out of clean socks and underwear.
We traded seeing the same people frequently for meeting new people frequently. Funny realization came from this: We weren’t seeing those we care about the most any less while on the road. There’s an illusion that because someone is geographically nearby -- that because we could, logistically, see them frequently -- that we must have been actually seeing them frequently. This is not always the case.
We traded occasionally revisiting the beautiful places near where we lived with visiting breathtaking places regularly on our travels. Another revelation: When we had gone on vacations before, there was a frenzy to see EVERYTHING we could, because we didn’t know when we’d be able to come back. Now, when we feel it’s time to move on -- and we haven’t seen everything of interest -- we just say, with confidence, “We’ll be back!”
We traded lots of bills for few bills. We don’t have an electric bill, a garbage bill, a cable bill to name a few. Our fuel bill is larger than it was, but our “rent” bill is ten times smaller. We have maintenance bills seemingly all the time, and although they can be costly (ex. $2000 for a new roof when we drove too close to a tree branch), they don’t come close to brick and mortar maintenance costs.
We traded a lot of time apart for almost all our time together. We feel like we’re inventing a life together. This is, without question, the most fun creative collaboration I’ve ever experienced!
We traded juggling quite so many of life’s responsibilities for refining our sense of purpose. We feel we can make a much larger impact in the world by focusing on how we can give back rather than on how we can maintain an ultimately unsustainable lifestyle.
So we chose “more”:
More time together
More financial peace of mind
More new friends
More creative problem solving
More moments of awe and wonder in the natural world
More presence in the moment
A clearer purpose for our future
How is this reflected in our identities? Our sense of self is now about streamlining our life to free more energy and awareness for the list above. We care less about the assessment of others about how we live, and more about our own alignment with the life we’ve designed and the priorities we’ve chosen.
What if people wanted to help you out at every turn?
What if you were miraculously offered the best seat, the last parking space, a big raise… extra consideration everywhere you went?
What if everyone around you smiled when you entered a room? What if they stood in line to hug you?
What if people wanted to follow your lead, even before they knew exactly where you were headed?
What one adjustment can cause all these positive outcomes?
Psychologist Robert Emmons, among others, conducted studies that show this one shift in orientation increases our energy, our emotional intelligence and our inclination to forgive while reducing depression, anxiety and loneliness.*
No, you can’t get it in pill form! What is it?
Gratitude! The magic ingredient is plain old, simple gratitude expressed consistently and with feeling.
In his book Everything Counts, Gary Ryan Blair echoes the powerful alchemy of gratitude, “There is a special kind of magic in the practice of showing gratitude. It raises our consciousness, recharges our energy, enhances our self-worth, and strengthens our spirit.” He goes on to write that he believes that “the one constant in a truly successful life is gratitude.” Not wealth, not recognition, not special skills or aptitudes, not higher education -- gratitude.
The practice of gratitude is two-fold:
Behavioral scientists conclude that it takes a ratio of 4 messages of appreciation to 1 critical message for someone to believe that they get an equal amount of positive and negative reinforcement.* Doesn’t this mean that lifting someone up requires actually telling them about all the things they do and all the ways they are that enhance your life in ways both great and small? People who feel criticized and undervalued grow reticent to take on life with passion and abandon. People who feel celebrated and highly valued show courage and an eagerness to do more and be more.
Am I saying that we should never tell someone when we believe they’ve made a wrong turn or a bad decision?
No, but consider frontloading at least four times the praise and appreciation first. People hear your words much better when their emotional bank account is flush. The fun part is that we don’t have to wait for a strategic time to fill up that account. We can praise and celebrate all the time, and when good conscience demands that we propose someone change a behavior or reconsider an action, it’s perceived as assistance rather than attack. When someone thanks me frequently and specifically for what I contribute, their advice and their requests for a change just make me feel more valued and worthy. I matter enough for them to care if I stay on course.
Gratitude is my remedy when I’m stuck in lower emotions, like frustration over dysfunctional phone trees and website protections that block all access to completing a simple task, or I find myself trapped for what seems like hours in a traffic jam, or I receive news that someone I care about is seriously ill, or sleep wouldn’t come last night. Whatever is not right about the moment or the day, I can trust that when I’m ready to chronicle what’s right in my life, negative feelings gradually subside, and as Gary Ryan Blair puts it, simple gratitude “deflates the barriers to love” while “dissolving negative feelings -- anger and jealousy melt in its embrace, fear and defensiveness shrink.”
With regular cultivation of gratitude, I can confirm that both Lee and I have developed what Blair calls an ability to withstand life events like heart transplants, losing all our possessions in a catastrophic accident, the death of loved ones. We are growing our immunity to depression and resentment by the simple practice of pivoting to celebrate what’s good and right in people and in the world.
As Lee just said, “You know what I’m grateful for today? I’m grateful for all I’ve learned, for all the time I’ve spent reading and listening and re-associating in the service of becoming a more appreciative man, a better man.”
*reference: The 9 Dimensions of Conscious Success by David E. Nielsen
Business Team / Life Team
Yesterday, Lee got a call from a young woman, a single mom with a young daughter. She said, “I can’t talk to my mom and dad anymore, but I know ‘Mr. Lee’ can help me sort out what happened today. I couldn’t believe it when the manager pushed me with both hands…” And the story went on from there.
Later that day, another member of our team called to talk about exhaustion and the overwhelm of daily life. Yet another called with an “Aha!” moment about determining when a candidate is willing to change to create change -- and when this is someone just looking for commiseration or a handout. The “Aha” was that he didn’t want to spend much time anymore with those with victim mentalities who endlessly list and recommit to their limitations.
We are building a business team, right?
No, it’s clear we’re building a Life Team -- a rare surrogate family with members pulling together, willing to learn from each other, and celebrating each other without judgement or exception. Our three calls yesterday were questions about responding rather than reacting, about finding the joy in the madness, about limiting association with self-limiting people, about consciously becoming more.
Lee and I often remark on the parallel between parenting and how we run our company. Good parenting, that is -- modeling what we teach, listening with the intention to understand, admitting mistakes, applauding victories, holding the vision of a purposeful, wide screen life.
Some people have experienced parents who lay down the law and punish infractions, or assume the role of a “superior officer” who commands by dominating and denigrating. Both in biological families and in business families, these strategies crush self esteem and suppress potential for a full, purposeful and joyful life.
Leadership by edict can only cause conflict and ultimately defection. What we aspire to is leadership where we routinely ask ourselves, “What is the principle here?” and “What will move this person closer to a life they will love?”
A recurrent thought I had when I was raising my kids was that it was an immense responsibility. I had a nightmare once that I was carrying my infant son across a tightrope spanning the Grand Canyon. I woke up with a start, short of breath and fully cognizant of how much my next steps as a parent might affect my son’s well being.
Later, I came to the realization that serious mistakes would cascade down the generations -- and so would excellent parenting decisions and course corrections. This can be seen as a tremendous burden, or as a reason to work on me -- grow me -- so that I am capable of giving guidance to those who will give guidance to the next generation, and the next.
Lee and I feel this same chance to create generational change with our business/life team. And we feel the same responsibility to keep growing in integrity, humility and wisdom, so that other lives, as well as ours, can more surely reach their full bloom of humanity. We cannot be too resourced; we cannot reach out to our mentor too much or read too many books or listen to the teachings of too many thought leaders.
More each day, we see the need to be willing to BE “parented.” Seeking people out who are further down the road illuminates the path ahead-- whether the journey is financial invincibility, or self-awareness, or peace of mind. Maybe we can’t see the way clearly yet, but someone else can.
Sometimes, I feel the same terror that I did as a mom -- of consistently setting the wrong example, of setting in motion duplication of my shortcomings rather than my strengths. But then, I remember, I can become a better woman, a better leader, a better mom, and that mistakes are not permanent unless I make them permanent by repeating them. I have -- we all have -- total freedom to continue to correct our course, to continue to evolve -- which, in the end, is the very best example to set.
The years accumulate. Experiences show up. Some we love to recall.
Some we’d prefer to erase. And some are intensely painful, whether physically or emotionally or both.
All experiences shape us. We choose how they shape us.
We’ve all heard the axiom that it’s not what happens to us, but how we respond to what happens to us that matters. When something happens that brings all familiar patterns to a screeching halt, do we contract and attempt to leverage sympathy -- or do we make a decision to expand and leverage gratitude and compassion? One immobilizes and diminishes us. The other empowers and activates us.
Lee and I believe our lives together are one big adventure story with lots of romance and sweeping vistas, some planned chapters, and several plot twists that test our courage, heighten our awareness and extend our vision. The heart transplant adventure two years ago, the rolling-the-truck-and-RV adventure three months ago, and assisting in Mom’s current journey with Hospice are events that have grabbed the steering wheel of our shared life and driven us to a totally unfamiliar terrain of choices and possibilities. They have fundamentally changed how we look at ourselves and how we look at our reason for waking up each morning.
You might call these experiences course correctors. Once the fog of disorientation dissipates, priorities get shaken into crystalline clarity and light a new path through the trees.
I think of these experiences as part of a refining process. This is a much different, much more dramatic refining process than the daily choices we make to improve and grow. Reading and listening to the thinking of those calling me to expand rather than contract activates a relatively steady personal growth curve -- nice and easy, with an occasional “Aha!” moment or bruised ego. This kind of growth is a matter of choice. It’s a garden that, best case, I plant and I weed. It requires both a willingness and a determination to discover the next, improved version of myself.
Then there are the spikes disrupting this gentle growth curve. This is a very distinct and often abrupt refining process I call “going through the fire”. Scientists coined the term, “adversarial growth,”* AKA “post-traumatic growth”* to identify the revelation some people have when they endure cancer, war, the death of a loved one -- any experience that suddenly aborts routine, assumptions and standard excuses. Multiple scientific studies show that some people manage to climb out of crisis and discover heightened joy, gratitude and sense of purpose in the midst of extreme upheaval.
It’s akin to the smelting process in which extreme heat is applied to extract metal from ore. These are refining experiences that we do not choose, the kind of experiences that I’ve long doubted that I would have the courage or the resilience to endure intact -- intact in my body, intact in my spirit, intact in my relationships.
These experiences of overcoming against stiff odds construct a complete person—one who can empathize, one who can be trusted, one with a heightened appreciation for relationships. These are the processes that extract our metal.
These are also the experiences we all pray to avoid, not only for ourselves but for everyone we know and care about.
These are the proving grounds.
I believe these through-the-fire experiences give me leverage. They force me up the learning curve. They compel me to make heavy-duty pivotal decisions even though it feels as if my emotions have been hijacked.
I believe these crucible moments are the only real chance I have of coming face-to-face with where I currently stand in life, of internalizing my true priorities, of feeling the urgency to do something that takes the load off somebody somewhere, to do something that bends the course of another life in a slightly more positive direction.
Accompanying Lee on his journey through near death, walking away miraculously unharmed from the massive roll-over accident, watching my mother gradually decline in Hospice care -- experiences like these compel me to do something harder than posting on Facebook or streaming the latest series on Netflix or numbing out innumerable other ways. I believe we resort to these numbing strategies in the effort to postpone the thought that we might be wasting our inexpressibly precious time.
Often I have willingly suspended my life in purposeless activity, perhaps to delay the realization that the moments of my life are finite, and there is so much more for me to create and contribute in whatever time remains.
What pulls me out when I succumb to anesthetized life?
The lifeline is two-fold and includes both the associations I invite into my life — who and what I listen to and read everyday —AND, remarkably, those moments of overwhelming fear followed by the climb back to wonder. The first -- the resolve to grow in ethics and impact every day -- is the the parachute that slows my fall and modifies the impact when life surprises me with crisis-adventures.
The wonder, the euphoria shows up once the soul-stretching, sometimes excruciating or terrifying experience yields to an undeniable miracle. This is how I am expanded and elevated so that I can see the terrain of my life and make a new plan for the new life I’ve been handed.
Do I often wish for a nice long respite from the fire? Yes. At the same time, though, I know I can’t be proven unless I’m tested. I can’t “show my metal” without going through the fire sometimes.
What I’ve learned is that ALL adventures must be embraced with both arms, with my whole heart, with all of me. There will be sunshine, there will be wildfires on the journey from birth to death. Sometimes I will be encouraged to grow, educated to grow and sometimes forced to grow. But first comes the willingness to reach, to fall, to get back up, to reflect and then reach again -- even though there are more proving grounds up ahead.
*The Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor
Anticipatory grief is a new concept for me, though it’s been around for a long time. There’s a page dedicated to anticipatory grief in Mom’s Hospice binder. The binder sits on the kitchen table along with inhalers, medications, Ana’s notes about Mom’s care and a calendar recording who’s relieving who and when. When I was growing up, nothing was allowed to rest long on that table except African violets and a pretty tablecloth in one shade of blue or another. Mom’s DNR is posted on the refrigerator next to photos of her grand and great grandchildren-- to ensure that emergency personnel know what to do and what not to do.
When Mom’s primary doctor first proposed that it might be time for hospice, without questions or hesitation, she said “No.” When her doctor asked again, she answered firmly, “I don’t feel like I’m dying.” The subject was broached yet again, because that’s what happens when a patient requires frequent trips to the emergency room due to falls or difficulty breathing.
I believe it was the fourth time she accepted. She was seeing a respiratory specialist. This doctor suggested it, not as an exit-from-life plan, but as a strategy for having the emergency room come to her-- cutting out the arduous ride to the hospital and the 6-10 hour wait time until release or admission to the hospital.
When the previous doctor pointed out this advantage, Mom responded, “Oh, I don’t mind going to the ER.” Funny thing about Mom, she sometimes tells the most absurd and obvious of lies. We who call her on it are frequently and openly amused. She’s fun to tease. Love to see her smirk and look to the side. It’s a sure sign that she’s still in there.
From Mom’s description of the pivotal conversation about hospice, I can see that what really convinced her wasn’t avoiding the revolving door to the emergency room, it was that this doctor looked her right in the eye, made her feel heard and valued, and Mom felt he was in no apparent hurry at all. I asked about this because Mom and I have had many conversations about her growing invisibility as she ages, and to a lesser degree, mine. Where it has never happened is with her Mexican housekeeper, her Salvadorean gardener or her Cambodian nail care specialist. This cultural discrepancy is invisible until you cross the line. What is the line? It varies, but by Mom’s age, many people are talking down to you, talking around you, or looking right through you. I was so thankful that this doctor, whatever his heritage, took the time to see Mom and make her feel seen.
A sense of invisibility, of being a faceless piece being moved around the medical board, will always cause Mom to resist. For years, she “fired” primary care doctors who said these words, “Well, Barbara, at your age…” I share -- I think most of us share -- the need to feel that I am still the author of my story.
Here are a few chapter previews in the story Mom has authored to date, a few versions of Mom that add up to who she is -- so far.
*Little Bobbie Roberts who slammed it over the fence before they knew to question girls in Little League…
*Barb Mauk who attended the very first Plenary Session of the United Nations by special invitation of the United Press Corps and never brings it up…
*Barbara Mauk who stood by the minister’s side to confront church matrons protesting an exchange with the Black church in Marin City...
*Barb Mauk who built a successful court reporting business, wrote a book and volunteered for over twenty year at Guide Dogs for the Blind, hiked to Lake Aloha in Desolation Wilderness in her 60s and traveled the world, even though Dad was done with travel on May 8, 1945 when Germany surrendered unconditionally.
*My mother, who, in her early nineties, joined other neighbors to fight to get Aleno back to his wife and infant daughter. Aleno, a South American refugee, kneels by my mom’s chair, holds her hand and strokes her hair back from her face every time before he starts to prune her trees, mow her lawn and water her flowers.
And of course, there dozens more chapters and versions of Mom, too numerous to list and undoubtedly many unknown to me.
Bobbie, Barbara, Barb, my mother -- they’re all still in there, The shell is deteriorating, but the substance is intact and still cumulative.
This brings us back to anticipatory grief.
The meaning is obvious. It’s the process of grieving the loss of someone who is still physically and sometimes -- as in Mom’s case --someone who is also still mentally present, but for whom the days are literally numbered.
That number may be hours or days, months or even years, but the illusion that death is far, far off (which we all entertain as long as we can) -- that illusion is gone. Some life process is deteriorating, some condition is progressing towards an inevitable end, and no matter how pharmaceutically effective we are at slowing the slide towards the final breath, it’s coming.
When someone we love is on the slide, it can be breathtakingly fast or agonizing slow and painful. There are often twists and turns in the slide, where first one slows down and regains some ground, and then the slide gets steeper and it’s almost like freefall.
I’m sure I’m not the only family member who has struggled for acceptance, thinking as I have so many times, “Okay, she probably won’t come back from THIS”? Mom has literally fallen on her face, fractured ribs, broken hips, suffered various SLOW healing wounds, gotten pneumonia, undergone gallbladder surgery - all in the past few years. She has justly earned the nickname THE AMAZING BOUNCE-BACK WOMAN.
When Mom finally consented to meet her hospice nurse, Jeff, she loved him at first sight. Mom’s always been a direct woman but there’s growing evidence that this character trait is on the ascent. She looked him in the eye and asked, “So I’m not going to get better?”
Jeff: “You WILL recover from the pneumonia. You’ll feel better than you do right now, but your lungs won’t stop getting weaker.”
Mom: “That’s what I’m afraid of -- not being able to breathe.”
Jeff: “That’s why I’m here. I’m not going to let that happen.”
My heart weeps for this painfully honest and therefore incredibly respectful conversation.
I read about the symptoms of anticipatory grief. These include loss of sleep, fatigue, forgetfulness, anger, sadness, even isolation and depression in some cases. I would add sudden weepiness with two distinct triggers:
*A memory can bring me to tears these days-- like the time I called Mom about visiting her on Mother’s Day only to learn she was marching in San Francisco that day with M. A. D. D.(Mothers Against Drunk Drivers). What better way to celebrate Mother’s Day than showing solidarity with other mothers?
*Support flooding in from friends and family causes me to spill over at times. Navigating this together, we sometimes lean in weariness but there’s someone right there to catch us before we fall.
It sounds like anticipatory grief has a whole lot in common with post-death grief, right?
Oh, but there’s more!
Quoting from a website called WYG (What’s Your Grief?):
“We are aware of the looming death and accepting it will come, which can bring an overwhelming anxiety and dread. More than that, in advance of a death we grieve the loss of person’s abilities and independence, their loss of cognition, a loss of hope, loss of future dreams, loss of stability and security, loss of their identity and our own, and countless other losses. This grief is not just about accepting the future death, but of the many losses already occurring as an illness progresses.”
When I think of Mom, whose cognition is still mostly intact, one major loss is the dimming down of her usually spunky - even contentious -- personality. Now when she lets out a command or a correction, we’re all somehow relieved rather than annoyed or offended.
Another loss is that she’s so tethered -- to her walker, to her reclining chair, to her oxygen and her inhalers. Her long hikes in the Sierras, her lifelong explorations to exotic destinations all over the globe are irrefutably over. She always said she needed something to look forward to, some trip to anticipate. She still asks Ana when she’s going to take her to Fiji, but I believe she’s just entertaining the fantasy.
I suppose it could be argued that she’s about to embark on the ultimate adventure, but let’s face it, there will be no slide show and no postcards, and her life is peppered with uncertainty not anticipation.
There are symptoms of anticipatory grief symptoms that I’m not suffering. I don’t feel anger or depression. It’s clear though that this rollercoaster makes it harder to relax into the present and feel untethered joy right now. Harder for Mom, too. She, too, is grieving the losses. She wants to jump up from her chair and make pancakes and sausages for us, swim a few laps and move the couch herself! She wants to plan a trip, go out to lunch without oxygen, go to the bathroom without an escort, take a really deep breath. She rarely gets depressed, but she does get angry sometimes. She’s always found limitations maddening.
Often but not always, it’s a girl child who is the culturally designated caregiver for aging parents. Once again, I never forget how fortunate I am that both my brothers, their wives, and my sweet husband, commit just as much, and often more, time, energy and emotion to helping Mom make what they call her “transition.” Add four grandsons and three granddaughters, three magical great grandkids, and all Mom’s “adopted children” -- Brian, an old flame of mine, Bonita who cleans for Mom, Aleno, the pool guy whose name escapes me -- all adopted by Mom --not to mention Mom’s sister/friends who are still active in the world - Sally, Patty, Karla, Martha and Peggy. When I ask Mom, “What are you grateful for today?” as I often do, she says, “Oh, I’m so grateful that I’m surrounding by people I love, who love me.” She is painfully aware this has not been true for most of her friends.
Although my brothers, sisters-in-law and my husband Lee share the load of relieving Mom’s caregiver Ana on weekends, we each experience the overwhelming exhaustion that comes with just two to five days a month of caring for Mom. It makes me wonder how Ana gives such attentive and compassionate care for five or six days running, often without a break. Our excellent guide in this journey, Ana explains we’re so tired because our emotions are on hyper-alert. She explains that although she loves Mom too, she doesn’t feel the same losses, both current and anticipatory.
It’s far from what I’d call mastery, but in recent years I have gotten quite good at silencing fretful thoughts in the middle of the night. But lately I’ve relapsed and my squirrelly wee-hours brain has been working overtime, seriously compromising my sleep quotient, not to mention contributing to the clenched muscles in my neck and shoulders. This, too, is characteristic of anticipatory grief. And minimal sleep has led inevitably to forgetfulness, distractibility and emotions way closer to the surface than I usually let them get. Keeping a tight rein on emotions is unequivocally one way I’m my mother’s daughter.
This is probably why I fear Mom’s fear at the end. Her grip on those emotional reins may loosen, allowing panic to take over. I know that hospice has a strategy for that, and some might say being in touch with one’s feelings is a good thing, but I fear it anyway. Mom remembers that her twin sister Kay struggled at the end, and I know she’s haunted by that. When we were all standing around Dad’s final bed at the hospital, and the doctor was recommending unhooking him from life support and letting him go, I intuited that Mom’s hesitation had to do with just that; she couldn’t face watching him desperately gasp for a last breath. I asked what to expect, the doctor reassured Mom, and Dad passed peacefully without another breath, without another heartbeat.
Mom always said she wanted to go “with her boots on,” suddenly and unexpectedly while living life to the fullest, optimally on a hike somewhere up high where she could see far. It hasn’t turned out that way, but I see now that she still has reasons to be here. She’s pushing through to her best end in her own way.
Back story: Mom has been unfailingly dedicated to those she loves, but most of her life she has also been unapologetically controlling and judgemental. There have been multiple women pass through my life who remind me of Mom. I call them “women with sharp corners.” I love and admire many of these women, but I’m careful to keep my boundaries in place around them.
Growing up and all the way into middle age, I was painfully aware of what I didn’t get from Mom. Approval, encouragement, hugs… When I was about 40, I had given up on ever winning Mom’s approval. We hadn’t spoken for months when I sat down one day and told her I needed to hear that she loves me even if she doesn’t approve of my choices. She replied, “I can’t do that” This was not because she didn’t in fact love me, but because her cultural blueprint is non-demonstrative, and because she needed to control more than comfort. For her, proclaiming her love translated as endorsement of my choices in life.
Mom’s transformation to a much more loving and tolerant woman was not quick, but our relationship healed suddenly and somewhat miraculously. One day I woke up and realized that with unconditional love, someone has to go first. I started telling Mom I loved her, and began washing the dog, pulling her garbage can out, moving the couch AGAIN, calling her now and then… NOT because I was trying to finally win her approval, but just because I love her. Everything changed that day. I have no illusions that I get the credit for this epiphany. It was too sudden and too clear for me to be the source. Wherever it came from, it feels to me that this was also when Mom began to change. Mom hugged when prompted. Mom expressed love and gratitude without being prompted. Mom praised more and criticized less.
Mom’s metamorphosis into a gentler, kinder person didn’t happen all at once. Long after all friction was gone from our mother-child relationship, I frequently “rescripted” her when I heard her bark something like “Move the couch over there. No! Turn it a little more this way!” Without emotion, I would say, “What you mean, Mom, is ‘I’d be so grateful if you would move the coach over there for me -- if your back is feeling okay…. THANK you!’” Or, she’ll be critical of a friend or family member, and I remind her -- “But you love (whomever)” and she would relent and respond, “Yes, I do.”
These rescripting moments - which I also used with my adolescent children - are extremely rare now. It’s like Mom’s having a final growth spurt on the inside even as her outer self shrinks and weakens.
About five years ago my wise husband encouraged me to initiate a regular schedule with Mom. Mom was first starting to fail but she could still enjoy a ride in the car. I began scooping her up for “explores” every Tuesday. Her friends started saying, “It’s Tuesday; must be Suz’ Day.” For a year or two before she was too weak to go, we headed out to the ocean or to the top of Mt. Tam or navigated obscure back roads in Forest Knolls or Napa. We appreciated every vista and talked about every topic. We worked on a list of life lessons Mom wants to share with all her progeny. It’s been an honor to witness what it looks like to reach and expand into the nineth decade of life.
Even before she began to mellow, I began to compile a list of what invaluable assets I have received from my mother. A sense of thrift and order. Always being on time. A commitment to exercise. Foremost among the attributes I credit to Mom is backbone. Like Mom, I’ve always trusted I could do hard things. A few examples: She started a business from scratch. So did I. She traveled extensively. To a slightly lesser degree, so did I. I remember the day she decided to move a bag of cement at 80 something years of age! I relocated an entire wine cellar of 500 plus cases at age 50 something -- a dozen cement steps involved. It’s not always good for the back to have Mom -- or Dad’s -- work ethic. My brothers can confirm this! Still, taking satisfaction in doing difficult and adventuresome things is also evident in the generation following ours, and I believe this will be an invaluable familial trait that will persist through the generations.
Mom has always supported causes she believes in, not just with money but with her presence and her voice. She certainly deserves credit for the sense of purpose and love of accomplishment that drives me, and I see this in my brothers too, but in them it’s tempered with more of Dad’s gentleness than I internalized.
Mom’s family has always been her primary cause. Her love of travel and her passion for her business never outranked us. We always knew she’d drop anything for us. She still would if she could. Dedication to family -- rack another legacy up for Mom.
I never miss a chance to tell Mom that it’s impressive and inspiring to see her expanding and growing at 96 years old. Even with the accelerating loss of control, her attitude and the quality of her relationships are still hers to enhance. I applaud it everytime I witness how she can now offer love without conditions and say thank you without reminders.
Does experiencing anticipatory grief mean that one won’t grieve after the loved one dies? The experts say there are no rules with grieving. My husband, Lee, said that he had said been saying goodbye to his much-loved mom who suffered from Alzheimer’s for so long that when she had a stroke and died, she’d been silent for so long that he didn’t have much grieving left to do, and he returned to work the very next day. My daughter Mayme tells me she was a little surprised when she burst into uncontrollable sobs when her paternal grandmother died, even though for many months her Baci had recognized her only as “the nice girl who cuts my hair”.
We’re all navigating a very long good-bye with Mom. The difference is that although Mom has moments of confusion, she’s still growing, she’s still giving, she’s still celebrating her family, she’s still spending time with her friends, she’s still cheering on her favorite team. I believe that few of us will be finished grieving when Mom’s end comes. Mom has always been and still is the anchor keeping our family from drifting too far apart. Sometimes -- many times the pull has felt like constraint. Still, after she departs, I know I’ll feel adrift in the world for awhile. In her decline, Mom has brought us all much closer. New patterns will emerge in the family tapestry when she’s gone, but now I know with certainty that it won’t unravel.
Writing this I’m realizing that we are all living one of Mom’s most powerful legacies right now. Mom saw her twin sister and Dad out of this world, putting in multiple years of care and anticipatory grief. She grieves still.
And now it’s our turn.
Susan is a published writer and motivational speaker with 30 years of experience, dedicated to guiding people to a life of financial invincibility and peace of mind.